Four years before I was born, during a period of unique planetary alignment, two room-sized contraptions were launched into space on indefinite, infinite trajectories. Not really aimed at anything, really, but aimed to pass near some things and photograph them, and then keep moving. They’re Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, and since I first learned about them, in middle school, I’ve been fascinated.
Here’s a list of things about Voyager that make me all gooey and idealistic inside:
1. They have no destination. They just go … away. Out there. Way, out there.
Eternally out there unless it accidentally hits something. What foresight, to plan how to shoot something out so that it can pass everything and not hit stuff so it can just keep going.
Voyager 1 passed Jupiter in 1979, and Saturn in 1980, and then flew past Titan (Saturn’s humongo moon 50% bigger in diameter than our moon and something like 80% more massive). Titan’s gravity pulled it out of a path where it would pass Pluto to photograph closely. in 1990, it had photographed everything, and it is the farthest thing we’ve shot out there that can talk to us. It’s the fastest probe and nothing out there right now will ever pass it. And right now, it’s leaving our solar system.
Voyager 2 passed Jupiter in 1979, Saturn in 1981, Uranus then Neptune. It discoered Neptune’s Great Dark Spot, and more information about why it’s blue. In 2007, it passed the heliosheath, and in 2010 was twice as far from the sun as Pluto.
2. They carry stuff meant to be found by extraterrestrial beings of other worlds. And who picked out this stuff? Carl Sagan. The “stuff” is carried on a gold phonograph record (don’t worry, the probe also carries a record player).
“This spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced space-faring civilizations in interstellar space. But the launching of this ‘bottle’ into the cosmic ‘ocean’ says something very hopeful about life on this planet,” Sagan said.
It carries recordings of greetings in 55 languages, animal sounds, photos of mathematical and scientific ideas, people, animals, food, music by Stravinsky, Mozart, Beethoven and Chuck Berry. On the cover are diagrams explaining how to play the record, as well as a map of pulsars showing where our sun is. And a drawing of a hydrogen atom in two states to show the time scale used.
And the opening line, from then-president Jimmy Carter, is eloquent and simple: “This is a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours.”
What Sagan said is right. The message of hopefulness and optimism, opportunity and excitement is something amazing and beautiful about our culture. About what it is to be a human citizen of this planet. If I think about it too hard, I feel like crying.
NASA and Sagan knew there was an incredibly small chance actual extraterrestrial beings would find and hear this recording but they did it anyway. They did it anyway. They chose to do something extra, something more, because of the hopeful, uniting message it gives.
That’s how I think about all of NASA: they did it anyway. Building rockets was dangerous and killed people. Sending humans out there into that bleak mystery was terrifying and expensive and took the combined efforts of thousands of people, working hard and at the highest levels of thinking, engineering and technology at the time. But they did it anyway. The moon was out there, so they went. And it took years of planning and testing and retesting and exceptional execution but more than anything it took the willingness to try to go. To do the hard work. To do whatever would take, without knowing what exactly that would entail, to achieve something incredibly idealistic and indulgent. And they did it. Despite everything, they did it.
3. Last year, Jet Propulsion Laboratory (the company that basically does all NASA R&D, where my aunt’s dad works) revealed that a bit had been flipped in the transmission from Voyager 2. One single binary piece of computer code, which could be represented as 1 or 0, had changed. What had happened?
Was this an alien race’s peaceful, non-destructive way to say hi? Was this something else? Actually, it was nothing, but for a few days, before JPL was able to reset it, there was a sense of fantastical wonder, not just from the possibilities, but also the excitement and potential of not knowing.
You know the feeling you get when you read a mystery, or watch a good thriller, and there’s a feeling in the not-knowing of excitement and anticipation and knowing that SOMETHING is coming but you don’t know what yet, and it’s … well, it’s something. And nothing else does it. And for a little bit, that wonder has been able to captivate our country, our planet, all of us, and there’s something to be said about that. Some credit to be given for captivating five billion people with just the simple idea of going out there.